On Thursday, at about 4 p.m. Central Standard Time, several news outlets reported that Dennis Hastert, the former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives and Illinois congressman, was indicted for, among other offenses, lying to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The media entities included BuzzFeed News, the Chicago Sun-Times, and CBS Chicago, all of whom posted their stories within minutes of each other.
However, the BuzzFeed story was the only one to have multiple professional journalists—both BuzzFeed employees and otherwise—praise it as a “scoop” upon publication. (The practice of BuzzFeed employees spamming everyone’s timeline with the same link at the same time, giving the impression of an institutional hive mind, has been previously noted by Awl Dean Choire Sicha.)
BuzzFeed’s story is timestamped 4:01 p.m., as is CBS Chicago’s. Already the claim that BuzzFeed “scooped” anyone is dubious, especially since the Sun-Times—whose story is timestamped 3:58 p.m.—beat them both (I was formerly employed by the Sun-Times’ parent company, Wrapports Inc., though I worked in a completely separate division and had nothing to do with the Sun-Times’ reporting or anything else).
A list of journalists and “media personalities” who heralded BuzzFeed’s “scoop” on Twitter:
- Rosie Gray, a political reporter at BuzzFeed
- Ashley McCollum, BuzzFeed’s chief of staff
- Lydia Polgreen, international deputy editor at the New York Times
- Jamil Smith, a senior editor at the New Republic
- Chris Geidner, BuzzFeed’s legal editor
Neither CBS Chicago nor the Sun-Times’ stories were lauded as “scoops” by anyone on Twitter.
The “scoop” as it stands in 2015 is a source of much derision, though perhaps not enough. Last year, financial journalist and Willy Wonka impersonator Felix Salmon said at a journalism conference that scoops are “the most masturbatory things journalists do. The reader couldn’t give a flying fuck who broke it.” He is correct; the only people that care about such arbitrary designations are the reporters and editors that get them and the reporters and editors that do not.
The internet made the “scoop” irrelevant. This has been obvious for a very long time. In 2006, American Journalism Review published a cringey piece on the new hot trend of newspapers publishing breaking news on the internet, as opposed to waiting until the next day to splash the story across the front page. “I understand where we’re going [with the Internet],” Carlos Illescas, a Denver Post reporter whose editors decided to break one of his scoops online instead of in the newspaper, told the Review. “I just don’t quite buy into that death-of-the-newspaper thing.” This conversation today would be ridiculous to have; the idea of holding onto news to sell newspapers is an obsolete one.
Much of the time, when a news outlet claims that they have a scoop, what they mean is, “We got this through the CMS first.” Nowhere is that more obvious than in entertainment journalism. In a 2013 story about L.A.’s quartet of identical trade outlets, Patrick Goldstein wrote:
After months of speculation, an actress had been chosen to play lusty Anastasia Steele in Universal Pictures’ adaptation of the best-selling erotic thriller Fifty Shades of Grey. The casting of Dakota Johnson, the daughter of Don Johnson and Melanie Griffith, was the kind of scoop that the Big Four trades (Deadline, The Wrap, Variety, and The Hollywood Reporter, which goes by the acronym THR) would have killed for. But it was not to be, since the book’s writer, EL James, had just revealed the casting choice herself on Twitter.
Within moments everyone in today’s zero-attention-span media scrambled to post the news, hoping to get a bump in Web site traffic. Stories about casting—a form of journalistic name-dropping—have been a staple since Variety was founded. But today, because they are the biggest drivers of traffic, they dominate as never before. Given that James had alerted her more than 358,000 Twitter followers, you would think it impossible for any journalist to claim bragging rights on the Fifty Shades news break. Still, one did: Mike Fleming, Deadline’s veteran movie writer, who topped his story with the label “Exclusive.”
When everything is exclusive, nothing is.
As it happens, the argument against “scoops” is rather convincing. You may remember the New York Post’s infamous “Bag Men” cover from the day after the Boston Marathon bombing. There were many, many faults with the reporting surrounding the Boston Marathon bombing and the ensuing manhunt, many of which were prompted by the drive for a “scoop,” at the expense of checking facts and getting information from multiple sources. (The Washington Post’s Paul Farhi, generally a prudent man, bafflingly defended much of that reporting, reasoning that readers won’t remember who broke the story, so they won’t remember who got it wrong.) It’s a practice that is endemic, extending to high-profile news startups run by former star Wall Street Journal reporters.
The old definition of a “scoop” in journalism, which dates to 1884, generally meant that whichever outlet claimed the scoop exclusively published the information, or at least published the information first. Since BuzzFeed did not even publish the story first, there is no feasible way that this story was BuzzFeed’s “scoop.” Even if it had published it first, it is a very hard sell to claim that a federal indictment of a former congressman is a “scoop” or “exclusive” at all, since it would inevitably be reported widely. (It is not as if BuzzFeed has some exclusive agreement with federal prosecutors to see their indictments before anyone else, as this would be highly unethical.)
Perhaps the first real online journalism “scoop” was when Matt Drudge broke the Monica Lewinsky story in 1998, after Newsweek killed it. James Fallows, then the editor of U.S. News & World Report told CNN, “The technology of nonstop news and the Internet means that allegations that would have been carefully checked out a generation ago no longer are. We now have a 24-hour-a-day news cycle. News gets used up very quickly and there’s a constant hunger for new tidbits.” If that was true then, it is scripture now. Erick Schonfeld wrote in 2009, “Web companies large and small are embracing [the] stream. It is not just Twitter. It is Facebook and Friendfeed and AOL and Digg and Tweetdeck… The stream is winding its way throughout the Web and organizing it by nowness.” It is something, then, that BuzzFeed is now publishing directly on Facebook.
The first batch of articles published directly to Facebook were an odd bunch (a New York Times feature, a 9,000 word Atlantic cover story, a… BuzzFeed listicle) but publications, especially ones that break news, like the above three, will eventually learn to use the platform the way their users do: to quickly update people on happenings. What are most Facebook status updates, already, if not breaking news? When New York Times stories are broken directly onto Facebook, it may mean that Facebook will direct more of its terrifyingly large userbase towards them—but it also, as Tom Scocca noted on this website, means that publications will begin, if they haven’t begun already, self-censoring articles (or, you know, news) to Facebook’s decidedly Disneyfied taste. So then what happens? We are become Facebook, destroyer of worlds.
Photo of ancient newsroom via AP